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Bushfires and Australia

Bushfires in Australia are very common, they don’t always end in a catastrophe like the one in Victoria on Black Saturday 2009, or Ash Wednesday 1983 in South Australia. The dry and hot Australian climate during summers, accompanied by hot winds, nurture wildfires that get out of control sometimes.

Image Credits: ClimateCouncil.org.au
Image Credits: ClimateCouncil.org.au

Bushfires in Australia are frequent events during the warmer months of the year, due to Australia’s mostly hot, dry climate. Each year, such fires impact extensive areas. On the one hand, they can cause property damage and loss of human life. On the other hand, certain native flora in Australia has evolved to rely on bushfires as a means of reproduction, and fire events are an interwoven and an essential part of the ecology of the continent. For thousands of years, Indigenous Australians have used fire to foster grasslands for hunting and to clear tracks through dense vegetation.

Types of bushfires

Aborigines used controlled fires for land management, to burn dry grasses and scrubs, and support fresh growth.

It has been a subject of discussion for many years, whether or not controlled fires should clear undergrowths in the woods to prevent serious bushfire blasts.

Grass fires are moving fast with medium heat. They can be up to three times faster than other bushfires. After years of flooding, grasses grow very high and cover huge areas in Australia. Good for cattle and sheep. However, when the grasses dry out in the hot summers, the risk of severe grass fires is very high.

Bushfires usually move slower, but have a high intensity and smolder for days. If the top of eucalyptus trees catch fire, the fire can move much faster, yet, it might really explode!

Unfortunately, especially around the fringe of the cities, wildfires out of control end up in a disaster every couple of years.

Bushfire Astonishing Facts

  • The back of fire burns the coolest, slowest and with the shortest flames.
  • The front of the fire is the hottest, fastest and most dangerous place.
  • Natural tree oils in native eucalyptus tree fuel fireballs and cause explosions.
  • When a fire increases in speed, the intensity heightens, making it even hotter.
  • The main causes of bushfires are accidents, human carelessness, arsonists and lightning.
  • Most homes, no matter how prepared, will not be able to withstand Code Red conditions.
  • Ember attacks are the most common way houses catch fire during a bushfire.
  • Radiant heat is one of the biggest killers of people and wildlife during a bushfire.
  • Victoria, Australia is one of the most fire-prone places in the world.
  • A bushfire can spread with burning embers, direct flame contact, and radiant heat.
Image Credits: ClimateCouncil.org.au
Image Credits: ClimateCouncil.org.au

The bushfire seasons in Australia

Most Australian states have a fire restriction season during the hot summer months, usually from November 1st until the end of March. Open fires are only allowed under certain conditions during this time.

On days of a total fire ban, any fires outside are prohibited.

The different fire seasons reflect the varied weather patterns throughout Australia.

Australia’s hot and dry climate contributes to severe fire events. The danger for wildfires increases with low humidity, strong winds, and high temperatures.

Winter and spring (June to December) is the bushfire season in the tropical north. This is the “dry” season, and even in winter, it can be very hot during the days.

The Australian center has its fire season in spring and summer (September to March).

Finally, the fire season along the south & east coasts and Tasmania is from summer to autumn (December to April).

You will see all kinds of warning signs, giving you information about the fire danger on any given day. Whether they look like self-painted boards or are high-tech signs, always take the message seriously.

Climate change is driving worsening bushfires in Australia

The burning of coal, oil, and gas is driving up global temperatures, leading to hotter Australian conditions. Since the mid-1990s, southeast Australia has experienced a 15% decline in late autumn and early winter rainfall and a 25% decline in average rainfall in April and May. Across Australia average temperature has increased leading to more record-breaking hot weather. Extreme fire danger days have increased.

Fire Danger Status and bush fire ready sign showing very high level

Current Bushfire Crisis

This year bushfire risk in parts of northeast New South Wales and southeast Queensland has been exacerbated by drought, very dry fuels and soils, and heat. All of these factors have been aggravated by climate change.

Rainfall for January to August 2019 was the lowest on record in the Southern Downs (Queensland) and Northern Tablelands (New South Wales). For example, Tenterfield and Stanthorpe were 77% below the longterm average.

Vegetation has been very dry with parts of New South Wales and Queensland experiencing record low soil moisture. The low soil moisture is symptomatic of both the recent intense dry conditions, as well as longer-term below-average rainfall since 2017.

Drought means vegetation is more flammable and therefore more likely to support extreme fire behavior and spot fires. Heat is a factor too, both exacerbating dry conditions and enabling sparks to take hold. For instance, virtually the whole of the Murray-Darling Basin has experienced record-breaking heat this year.

Climate change is lengthening the bushfire season. The northern and southern hemisphere seasons are now overlapping, making it difficult to pool resources such as personnel and firefighting equipment. The opportunity for hazard reduction burning to limit the threat of bushfires is closing, with all year round bushfires.

Greg Mullins, Climate Councillor and Former NSW Fire and Rescue Commissioner talking to 10’s The Project on how climate change is impacting hazard reduction burns.

Nearly 500 million animals lost

Ecologists from the University of Sydney have speculated that over 480 million animals, birds, and reptiles have been lost because of the devastating fires.

The destruction is so widespread and intense that scientists fear that entire species of animal and plant life will be lost in the bushfires.

It is speculated that nearly 8,000 koalas- which is 30 percent of the koala population in NSW’s mid-north coast region- have perished in the fire.

It is also observed that a lot of plant and animal species that were previously immune to fires are getting destroyed.

Image Credits: Britannica.com
Image Credits: Britannica.com

Age-old forests perished

Image Credits: News.Sky.com
Image Credits: News.Sky.com

A lot of ancient forests in Australia have been lost to the wildfires.

Reports show that 48 percent of the Gondwana reserves, which have been present since the age of dinosaurs, have been destroyed. The Royal Botanical Gardens in Sydney estimate that almost 30 rare animal species and 30 rare plant species have been lost in some areas.

It is observed that trees in older forests are at even more risk than other tree species as they have thinner barks that can’t protect them in such extreme wildfires.

Wildfires triggering thunderstorms

Because of extreme weather conditions and widespread wildfires, a huge thunderstorm could destroy the Australian community even further.

The fires have triggered an explosive thunderstorm called pyrocumulonimbus, which injects particles as high as 10 miles into the air.

These thunderstorms are caused because, during a fire, heat and moisture from the plants are released. Since warm air is heavier than cold air, it rises up in the air and forms a cloud which eventually turns into a thunderstorm.

Reports show that 11 people have been confirmed dead and 28 are still missing. Mass evacuations are still taking place all over the country.

Policy/government preparedness for bushfires

“We need urgent emissions reductions and a coordinated national effort on coping with worsening extreme weather disasters”. Greg Mullins, Climate Councillor, member of the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action and Former NSW Fire and Rescue Commissioner (Climate Council 2019).

The government must develop a plan for escalating fire danger in Australia. It is crucial that communities, emergency services, and health services are well prepared for the increasing severity and frequency of extreme fire conditions.

As fire risk increases, disaster risk reduction and adaptation policies will play a critical role in reducing risks to people and their assets. Increased resources for our emergency services and fire management agencies will be required (Climate Council 2014b; Climate Council 2014c). In particular, we will need an increasing number of firefighters.

Image Credits: HowStuffWorks.com
Image Credits: HowStuffWorks.com

These calls for planning and preparedness are not new, but the government has repeatedly failed to heed them. In 2013, Mr. Gary Morgan, CEO Bushfire CRC, told the Senate Inquiry into Recent trends in and preparedness for extreme weather events “current practices will not sustain [fire agencies] into 2020” (Climate Council 2014a).

We must cut our greenhouse gas emissions rapidly and deeply to reduce the impact of future bushfires and other extreme events. Burning fossil fuels, like coal, oil, and gas, must be phased out.

Yet Australia’s emissions have been rising year-on-year for the past five years (Department of the Environment and Energy 2019) and the Federal Government has no credible policy to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. Australia is not on track to meet even its dismal Paris target of 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030.

We have the solutions at our disposal to tackle climate change: we need to accelerate the transition to renewables and storage technologies, and non-polluting transport, infrastructure, and food production. Now we need to Federal Government to step up to protect Australian lives from worsening disasters in the future.

How to survive?

It is scary to think about this, and it is also hard to believe, but you can survive a fast-moving fire in your car, or a house, provided you are well-prepared.

The South Australian Country Fire Service has published useful information on their website. They explain things you should know in detail and much better than I ever could.

Prepare, Act, Survive 

is the slogan to survive bushfires in Australia.

References:

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